Many Democrats against U.S. intervention in Syria cite the American experience in Iraq as a basis for their opposition to a military strike against the Assad regime. "The Iraq thing is why people have so much trepidation about going into Syria," James Carville explained on Fox News Wednesday. "I think what really is freaking people out is the incompetence of the Bush administration in Iraq." Many other Democrats have said the same thing in less pithy fashion.
Some Republicans scoff, but the critics have at least a little bit of a point. The Iraq war took disastrous turns that were unforeseen by the Bush administration, resulting in entirely unnecessary calamities for U.S. forces. But on the other hand, there are huge differences between Iraq and Syria. George W. Bush made the case for war for many months before invading Iraq in March 2003. He relied on congressional authorization and United Nations resolutions. And the Iraq war was major operation that resulted in 4,486 American deaths and 32,223 wounded -- certainly not a limited, relatively minor military strike envisioned by the Obama administration in Syria.
As it happens, there is a comparison much more fitting than Iraq for the contemplated action in Syria. It is the Obama administration's intervention in the Libyan civil war. The Libyan action was a small-scale entry into an ugly Middle Eastern civil war, touted as an effort to relieve a "humanitarian crisis" and ensure that dictator Moammar Gaddafi not murder thousands of his own citizens.
The intervention was limited and small-scale, done with the imprimatur of NATO but mostly with American firepower. It was conducted on behalf of rebels about whom U.S. officials knew relatively little, particularly on the key question of whether they were legitimate freedom fighters or violent Islamists.
Some of the same people who are today assuring the American public that Syrian rebels are legitimate were in 2011 assuring the public that the Libyan rebels were legitimate. The most prominent of those is, of course, Republican Sen. John McCain, who met with Libyan rebels during that crisis and has met with Syrian rebels in recent times.
McCain visited Benghazi in April 2011 and called the rebels the "legitimate voice of the Libyan people." Calling on the U.S. to take decisive action, McCain said, "I have met with these brave fighters, and they are not al Qaeda. To the contrary: They are Libyan patriots who want to liberate their nation. We should help them do it." McCain scoffed at doubters who said the rebel ranks contained more than a few terrorists.
The Libyan intervention stopped Gaddafi. But his dictatorship ended in just another brutal, extrajudicial killing, as rebels bloodied and tortured Gaddafi before killing him and putting his body on display in a meat locker in Misurata. It was not an end that democracy-promoting U.S. officials should have been proud of, but top Obama administration figures were, anyway. "We came, we saw, he died," then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said upon learning of Gaddafi's death.
More importantly, the rebels did not prove to be the natural democrats some intervention advocates believed. After the U.S. intervention, the country struggled and failed to set up a working government. Today, power is wielded mainly by a group of militias left over from the revolution. The presence of terrorists was shown dramatically by the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi -- the same city where McCain praised the freedom fighters -- that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. To show how little governmental authority there is in the land, the U.S. diplomats relied not on Libyan officials but on a militia, the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade, for security. Of course, the militia didn't protect the Americans when the Benghazi attack came.
And Libya, by all accounts, is now a mess. The U.S. intervention was a success in the sense that it deposed Gaddafi and left no American dead or wounded. But it left behind a chaotic power vacuum in an increasingly unstable region, plus the disastrous legacy of Benghazi. Now, Syria is a much bigger place, with more arms and more infrastructure and more chaos if things go terribly wrong. Perhaps lawmakers contemplating U.S. intervention in Syria might be better off remembering Libya than focusing on Iraq.